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Yemen strikes stoke fears of wider conflict with Iran

Tehran's alleged backing of Houthis has brought its ambitions in the region into the spotlight.

Yemen strikes stoke fears of wider conflict with Iran

By Mustafa Caglayan


Iran's alleged involvement in the Houthi insurgency in Yemen is stoking concerns that the region may be embroiled in a wider sectarian confrontation.

A fifth night of airstrikes by a Saudi-led Arab coalition has hit the positions of the Shiite Houthi group in Yemen, including some in capital Sanaa.

Although Riyadh says the strikes were in response to calls by Yemen's UN-backed President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi for military intervention to "save the people from the Houthi militias," many commentators believe the conflict already carries the undertones of a proxy war between Sunni Arab states and Iran, a predominantly Shiite country.

"Iran did not create the Houthi movement but is willing to use it as a card against the Gulf States," according to Alex Vatanka, an Iran expert at Washington-based Middle East Institute. "The question is to what purpose and to achieve what strategic goal."

He said Yemen could not be an end-goal for Iran, as it is a massively troubled country beyond Tehran's capacity to master. 

"Yemen is not southern Lebanon, and the Iranians know this well," he said.

The impoverished Arab country has been rocked by turmoil since September 2014 when Houthi forces overran Sana'a, whence they have since sought to extend their influence to other parts of the country.

Their forays into territory far from their northern stronghold have led the country to the edge of civil war, with other factions including al-Qaeda and Daesh getting more and more involved in the conflict.

Gulf countries accuse Iran of supporting the Houthi insurgency and destabilizing Yemen, with Tehran's influence having already extended into other conflict-ridden countries in the region such as Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.

Despite this seemingly growing sphere of impact, Vatanka says he is skeptical about the depth of Iran's influence in the region.

"Iran is no doubt significantly stronger today in geopolitical terms than was the case only a few years ago," he said. "The question is how much of it is because Tehran has an attractive political model that appeals versus Iran benefiting from vacuums in the region."

He said Tehran successfully filled the power vacuums resulting from conflicts in Syria and Iraq when local partners, such as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Iraq's Shiite-led government and the Houthis in Yemen, had no one else to turn to.

"So, yes, Iran is more spread out in the region today but the question here is how deep is Iran's influence? I don't think Iran's influence is that deep and that is a problem for Tehran."

He said Iran's regional rivals have to be willing to compromise with Iran and be open to find common ground with Tehran in order to avoid a large scale confrontation. 

"The continuation of the pursuit of zero-sum game strategy for influence in the Middle East will only bring more disasters for the region and in a worst case scenario lead to an all-out war in the entire Middle East from Afghanistan to North Africa," said Vatanka. "And everybody will lose in that case at huge human and financial costs."

According to Walid Phares, a Middle East and Terrorism expert at Washington-based Global Policy Institute, the Houthi insurgency in Yemen realigned countries in the region that were at odds with each other, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.

"But how long this new coalition can last is a question to be answered," he said.

The Saudi-led "Operation Decisive Storm" has also received the support of the U.S., France, Britain and Turkey.

Phares said tensions between Iran and the West would continue to complicate the peaceful solutions to crises in the region as long as the interim deal on Tehran's nuclear program was not resolved.

“The rise of the Houthi in Yemen should be seen as a new stage of Tehran’s efforts to greatly expand its role and capabilities of unconventional naval forces”, according to Michael Knights of The Washington Institute.

He said that the Strait of Hormuz -- the world's oil lifeline on the Persian Gulf -- was already under Iranian control. 

If the Houthis succeeded in taking over Yemen, he said, Tehran would be able to extend its legs to the Red Sea as well.

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